“Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big, black bat?”
The year is 1995 and thus spake The Riddler (a maniacal Jim Carrey) in Joel Schumacher’s utterly bonkers take on the Batman universe, Batman Forever. Well, the answer was of course absolutely nobody. Taking over directorial duties from he of the inky heart Tim Burton (who moved into the Producer’s chair), Schumacher, presumably in thrall of nervy Warner Bros execs, instead applied a neon polish to Burton’s grimy Gotham and discarded the brooding tone of Bat instalments one and two in favour of camp, vampish comedia.
Whereas Burton’s Batman was a haunted, insular, thoughtful soul scarred by the cruel murder of his parents and goaded by gruesome villains such as The Joker and Penguin, Schumacher’s hero existed in a world more akin to the fluorescent panels of a decidedly unthreatening comic book.
Gone too was Michael Keaton, star of Burton’s films, who depending on whose version of events you believe, either demanded too much money and was replaced, or who baulked at the crass direction that Schumacher wanted to take the series and duly jumped ship. Either way, Val Kilmer was to don the batsuit, by now bafflingly replete with rubber nipples, worryingly indicative of Schumacher’s approach.
In too came Nicole Kidman as eye candy du jour and love interest Dr Chase Meridian and the decidedly cartoonish villainous duo Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) and The Riddler. Carrey’s casting as said tongue-twisting scoundrel was considered a real coup given his unprecedented star power at the time and there’s little doubt that his rubber faced antics lent proceedings a more light hearted, family friendly edge.
Lest we forget the woefully miscast Chris O’Donnell who fudged his way through proceedings as inept acrobat and superhero wannabee Dick Grayson aka Robin. Small mercies then that Marlon Wayans was effectively paid off not to appear after initially being cast, although it would be amiss to suggest that he would have done a worse job.
From the outset production was beset by problems. Warner Bros were commercially driven, determined that the film outperform Returns at the box office. This put paid to Schumacher’s apparent intention to adapt Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One origin story, who instead decided to co-opt previous collaborator Akiva Goldsmith to work on the script of a seemingly more viable sequel.
Schumacher was also determined to make a clean break from Burton’s films in look and feel. His Gotham was to be a neon soaked, art-deco esque cityscape, in stark contrast to the bleak world that his predecessor had so carefully constructed. A new Batmobile, Batwing and Batboat were created, which were flashier, slicker, bolder and ultimately more commercial than previous incarnations. The inevitable result being that Schumacher’s Gotham felt more fantastical and less grounded in reality, which in turn served to dilute the appeal of Batman as an afflicted and very human superhero.
Style over substance was in fact very much the order of the day and it’s particularly telling that the most forgettable aspect of Schumacher’s pic is the plot, so here’s a brief précis to refresh those neon addled memories…
Harvey Dent aka Two Face is causing havoc across Gotham. Teaming up with spurned Wayne Enterprises employee Edward Nygma (E Nygma geddit?) in his guise as The Riddler, they in turn seek to uncover the true identity of Batman. The Riddler’s mind reading device threatens to expose Bruce Wayne’s secret, whilst all the while Dick Grayson strives to prove himself worthy of becoming his apprentice. Explosions and bun fights ensue, whilst Nicole Kidman flicks her hair and flutters her eyelids. In hindsight it all comes across as somewhat rambunctious, noisy and a bit ludicrous.
That’s not to say Forever doesn’t have its moments. Caricatures though they might be, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey revel in their cantankerous roles, ensuring that Two Face and The Riddler are two of the most enjoyable, albeit non-menacing rogues in the entire series. As a 13 year old there was nothing more delectable than witnessing Carrey romping across the screen, chewing up the scenery in sparkly spandex get up, aping Cesar Romero and evidently having a whale of a time. I for one endlessly quoted the line: “Like the jacket? It keeps me safe when I’m… jogging at night!” incessantly for years, much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone I knew.
Kilmer is perfectly serviceable as the bat, wholly superior to George Clooney who followed and who effectively sleepwalks his way through the unmitigated disaster that was Batman & Robin. That said, Schumacher found himself at loggerheads with his star whom he found abrasive and insubordinate on set. It’s probably safe to say that had Kilmer not been unavailable for the follow up due to shooting conflicts with The Saint that he probably would have been moved on regardless.
Batman Forever was a bold and ambitious departure from the very fabrics that had made the series such a success in the first place and whilst not all of the gambles paid off- it has aged very poorly- it did what Warner Bros set out to do, which was to make the studio a lot of money. It opened to the highest opening weekend of all time (I for one went twice on consecutive days) and was the sixth highest global grossing film of 1995. Not only that, but it also spawned two smash hit singles in U2’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me and Seal’s Kiss From A Rose and was even nominated for two Oscars (Cinematography and Sound Editing).
Very much of its time, Batman Forever was a cultural behemoth, thrusting the moody DC series firmly and confidently into the consciousness of the mainstream. Schumacher’s vision was a million miles from that of Burton’s, but perhaps his predecessor’s presence in a production capacity actually reigned him in. For some aficionados, Schumacher had already jumped the shark, but Burton’s absence from the catastrophic Batman & Robin highlighted what might have been had Tim not been there, shoulder to shoulder with Joel during Forever’s production gently whispering in his ear: “The nipples are one thing, but I draw the line at the codpieces.”